Exploring the Reliability of Oral History on One's Memory


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Oral History is a recorded conversation, conducted according to generally accepted professional rules aimed at turning personal memories into publicly accessible certificates. Typically, the interviewees viewed or participated in an event regarding the given subject. Oral History refers to the finished product, the story of the historical interpretation and their availability for future generations. The uniqueness of Oral History method is that the recorded Knowledge is the closest to its original form, and open to different interpretations. Oral History primarily serves historical research but is widely accepted in various fields of social science such as social work, folklore and sociology, and often is being seen as memories of events.

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The first steps of Oral History began with the foundation of a research project at Columbia University in 1948 (1) by the historian Alan Nevins. The first goal of the project was related to the field of archiving and aimed at producing information for historians first-hand to be kept in libraries and archives. According to Nevins, the modern media of his time, the telegraph and the telephone, took the place of letters and caused a loss of sources of information of great historical value (5). Through the recorded interview was possible to produce new archival sources, based on the memories of the interviewees.

The University of Columbia project began with biographies of well-known Politicians and intellectuals and have moved to interviews of groups of people around a common theme. Each interview was carefully prepared through careful study of archival material and ended with a long transcript compiled and archived. The right of the interviewees to determine whether the interview will remain confidential or open to the public has been strictly guarded. in the 1950s, Nevins’ method gain popularity by other universities In the United States and abroad.

Alan Nevins claimed that he did not found Oral History. In ancient times historians like Thucydides and Herodotus relied on eyewitnesses’ stories which were based on things that were orally delivered. Moreover, companies with no written record have also preserved their legacy by Oral History. The innovation in Nevins’ method was the establishment of scientific criteria for systematic collection of interviews and testing them through criticism by saving them in archives. The development of recording techniques, and especially the invention of the tape recorder, ensured the reliability of the recorded conversation and allowed interviewers to concentrate on the interview.

Although this is not explicitly stated, it is clear that researchers at the start expected to discover facts about historical events. The interview was seen as an objective collection of material, with no interpretation of its content, but keeping the information reliable.

The next part will present the approach that characterized the Oral History projects established by university and government research institutions in the 1950s and 1960s, that designed to create complementary sources for written certificates. The final product of the Oral History created by this method is the transcript and not the recording tape. What we know today as Oral History, developed by those ideas.

The Interview

  1. Following the principles of Alan Nevins’ method (5):
  2. Study the research topic to discover the information area.
  3. Prepare a personalized questionnaire for the interviewee.
  4. Transcription of the interview without polishing the text and examination by the interviewee.
  5. Preserving the final version as ‘a new source for the history of our time’.

At the base of the idea, Oral history can be done by anyone and do not require special training to do. With that said, Oral History characteristics developed, expecting a research interviewer to try and read the interviewee behaviour and be sensitive and focus, in order to lead the interview in an efficient way that will not waste time for the participant and the interviewer. It can be done by creating an emotional connection with the interviewee, providing a supportive environment during the interview or challenging the interviewee with an important question, to name a few.

Oral History attempts to improve its solutions for challenges when carrying out an interview. By preparing for the interview by knowing your goal and desired information, matching good questions in the right timing and have some background knowledge on the subject

Some criticism about the interview could be regarding the interviewee and the interviewer feeling, motives, behaviour and values in the time the interview conducted. As well, some questions are about the interview setup and terms.

Drawbacks – Reliability

The main drawbacks of Oral History are the weakness of the human memory and the biases of the interviewee. The historian can try to overcome them by crossing the information with more evidence.

Person’s memory may be wrong and therefore it is very important to verify the interviewee with written certificates. The interviewer, thanks to the prior knowledge acquire on the subject in question, has to prevent the interviewee from unnecessary idealizing or advocating. Furthermore, we have to examine the facts and opinions expressed by the interviewee through supplementary interviews with others who took part in the same actions or events.

New theories open to researchers a variety of ways to understand the various ways of interpreting Oral History and understanding the huge potentials inherent in it, but they also endanger the dangers of distorting and changing the intentions of both interviewers and interviewees. The historians and also the public need to acknowledge that after an oral certificate is created and is archived, they have no control over the interpretation that researchers and readers will attribute to it. The conclusion is that they should exercise caution in that part of the process under their control and ensure the proper professional level of conducting and retaining the interview.

Some historians criticise Oral History by questioning the final product reliability since those interviews rely on the human mind and its memory. in accordance, Oral History material is seen as less reliable when compared to the written sources.

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